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If you’ve been following my work, you may have noticed I’ve transitioned from veteran issues to addictions. I thought I should probably elaborate on this shift in focus and share the underlying theme driving all of my work.
After reading a few of my articles, it should be fairly clear that the underlying theme is the power of social connection. It has been the central driving force behind my writing for the last ten years.
Although I usually talk about the research on social connection and its various benefits and impacts on our lives, this article will have a bit of a different tone. I want to share a bit of an autobiographical account of the things I’ve learned since I started writing about these ideas.
My interest in the power of social connection started when I began studying sociology. Initially heading into law enforcement, I was fascinated by how criminal behavior is often the result of social forces such as poverty. I started applying to the RCMP (being Canadian and all) and figured I’d just get a sociology degree because it sounded like the most interesting way to spend four years.
Throughout my education, I began to realize that law enforcement is not the solution to the underlying issues facing society. This complicated my goal, but I rationalized it by believing I would change the system from within!
One day, after instructing an aqua-fitness class (very random), a couple came up to me and asked why I wanted to get into policing.
“Great pay, good benefits, and secure retirement,” I replied, quickly realizing how unfulfilling this answer sounded.
After asking me about my real interests, it became clear I needed to pursue sociology further. It was at that moment I decided to apply for the Master’s degree program.
From that moment on, I became obsessed with sociology. Getting into the program, I didn’t know what to study, but I just held onto my underlying conviction in the power of social forces.
At around that time, about ten years ago, I also started my first blog, mainly directed at critiquing religion. I thought I was against religion, but looking back, I was just against the corrupt aspects of the institution and superficial interpretations of sacred texts. Here is an excerpt from one of my early articles:
The story of the last supper is an example of an occurrence that if taken literally, a person must believe they are consuming the body and blood of Christ that is transformed from bread and wine into a divine substance. To believe this is to miss the point. The bread and wine may be sacred, but it is no more divine than it was before it was blessed. The communion represents the importance of community rather than the literal ingestion of Jesus as many Catholic practitioners still maintain.
This is an early glimpse into my interest in the power of social connection. Mystification around the catholic communion ritual was a common theme in my writing. I had spent too many years watching people at church just go through the motions like zombies enacting supernatural cannibalism.
Although the tone in my writing during these years was a bit reactionary and critical, I stood for improving the quality of religious rituals to bring back a focus on social connection.
Throughout the Master’s program in sociology, I became utterly obsessed with theoretical texts. My quest to understand social theory was fueled by a deep existential need to understand the meaning of life (yes… no small task!).
If you ask my mentors at this time, they would likely say the same. I completely believed I was just one insight away from understanding a grand social theory of everything! I was so lost in the theoretical jargon; almost everything I wrote was unreadable.
Here is a sentence from my Master’s thesis:
“Drawing on Michel Foucault’s late work on Christian technologies of the self, this paper asserts the continuity of ascetic ethical practices in the representation of modern fitness.”
To translate, I critiqued the way fitness is represented in the media. Similar to my critique of religion, I argued that the individualistic weight loss television genre blamed individuals for their moral weaknesses. In short, it fostered shame and division rather than community.
Much of my writing at this time became increasingly abstract and impenetrable. I was talking about social issues, but it was making me increasingly antisocial since I couldn’t communicate the message to anyone outside of a very narrow field of study.
Once I began my doctoral studies, I knew I had to change something. I had four years to study anything I wanted, supported by funding and scholarships derived from public sources.
This was big! I felt like I had to do something publically relevant, something that could potentially help people. I couldn’t go on, further isolating myself in an impenetrable web of intellectual language games.
Luckily, right around this time, I was presented with the opportunity to research Canadian veterans. I had never been interested in the military or veterans’ issues before then. Like many sociology grad students, I was generally against the institution.
I leaped outside my comfort zone, seeing this as an opportunity to do something relevant, meaningful, and potentially helpful. I learned everything I could about veterans’ issues, and it transformed the way I looked at things.
I started the first version of this website around that time, committing to communicate my research in clear and accessible language. I wanted to do justice to the issue, receiving full support from the population I had the privilege to study.
The power of social connection became an increasingly evident theme in my writing. I used my articles as brainstorming drafts for my dissertation, growing as I received feedback from readers. If you’re interested in checking out this content, I’ve compiled these articles in the Veterans in Transition section of this site.
Once I finished my dissertation, the power of social bonds couldn’t be more apparent. It was everything. My research helped me learn how veterans struggle with issues beyond PTSD. Rather than merely focusing on mental health issues, I realized we need to focus on social health issues.
Reintegration into a highly individualistic civilian social world can often be its own form of traumatic experience. Going from a tightly bonded military community with a strong sense of purpose to a loosely structured civilian world without a strong sense of urgency can make veterans feel isolated and purposeless. You can see my finished dissertation here.
After studying sociology for nine years, I graduated with my PhD and now needed to make money. I was lucky enough to get offered a part-time teaching position at Eastern Michigan University, but this was not enough. Full-time positions were hard to come by, and being unemployed in the summer was not sustainable, so I began looking for work outside of the university world, something I had almost no experience with since my aquafitness days.
A lucky break came when I got a position doing problem gambling prevention programming. The role consists of being available within the casino to assist people concerned about their gambling, in addition to sharing facts vs. myths of how gambling works. This position was an abrupt reeducation in how to communicate with non-sociologists.
Just like the military, I had never been particularly interested in addiction, nor did I have any experience with it. I decided to enroll in an addiction counseling certificate program at a local college in an attempt to learn how to do front-line work in the field. I soon became obsessed with learning about addiction, just as I had done with sociology (…with a bit less angsty existential fury).
Although I and began building a career in a completely new area, I noticed the same lessons I learned when studying veterans issues applied to addiction. Social connection is a powerful force for recovery and addiction is rooted in isolation. I share this lesson in my article, “The Most Neglected Aspect of Addiction Recovery.”
I recently moved into a treatment focused role within a healthcare setting, focusing on problem gambling as well as internet and gaming addiction. Upon reflection on why I’ve been drawn to this area, I’ve realized it’s because these forms of addiction are especially focused on the “social” theme. My article, “Is Social Media Making Us Less Social?” directly addresses this question. Also, my most recent article, “How to Prevent a Gaming Addiction,” looks at how social isolation contributes to gaming addiction.
Going forward, I plan to continue delving deeper into the same theme that initially sparked my interest in sociology. I’ve focused on many different topics, including religion, fitness, veterans in transition, and addiction. Still, the thread tying it all together is my profound conviction in the power of social connection.
Check out my articles if you share this conviction and want to read more.
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In an age where we are becoming more connected through social media every day, it sometimes feels like we are also becoming less social.
Why go through all of the inconvenience of meeting up in person when you can simply catch up online?
Within the last decade, technology has profoundly shifted the nature of human communication.
Some say we are “hyper-social,” always connected and communicating with multiple people at the same time. Others would say we have become “anti-social,” glued to our devices, and lacking interpersonal skills. So which is it?
Is social media making us less social?
Social Media is making us less social when used to compare oneself to others, contributing to higher levels of loneliness and lower levels of well-being among frequent users. It can be social when used to connect with others.
Let’s take a look at the research.
Also, if you or someone you know is struggling with mental health issues, you can check out my resource page for suggestions on how to find help.
Social Media Contributes to Social Isolation
The first study looking at this phenomenon was published in 1998, around the time when many people were starting to use the internet.
The researchers followed 169 people during the first two years of their internet use to determine if this new technology made them more social or less social, finding:
“…greater use of the Internet was associated with declines in participants’ communication with family members in the household, declines in the size of their social circle, and increases in their depression and loneliness.”
This was seen as quite the paradox, given that the individuals were using the internet extensively as a communication technology.
A 2004 study comparing internet use to face-to-face interaction found a similar conclusion, stating:
…the Internet can decrease social well-being, even though it is often used as a communication tool.
Has anything changed since then?
Ten years later, a 2014 study on college students suffering from internet addiction found:
Results show that excessive and unhealthy Internet use would increase feelings of loneliness over time…[.] This study also found that online social contacts with friends and family were not an effective alternative for offline social interactions in reducing feelings of loneliness.
In her recent book, iGen, Jean Twenge writes about the generation born after 1994, finding high rates of mental health issues and isolation:
“A stunning 31% more 8th and 10th graders felt lonely in 2015 than in 2011, along with 22% more 12th graders”…[.] All in all, iGen’ers are increasingly disconnected from human relationships.
She argues the increasing level of screen-time and decreasing degree of in-person interaction leaves igen lacking social skills:
“In the next decade we may see more young people who know just the right emoji for a situation—but not the right facial expression.”
A 2016 study comments on this generational phenomenon, stating:
It is surprising then that, in spite of this enhanced interconnectivity, young adults may be lonelier than other age groups, and that the current generation may be the loneliest ever.
The correlation between internet use and isolation is fairly established in the literature. But let’s not paint the whole internet with the same brush.
A 2014 study highlights the psychological costs and benefits derived from social media use, stating:
…online tools create a paradox for social connectedness. On one hand, they elevate the ease in which individuals may form and create online groups and communities, but on the other, they can create a source of alienation and ostracism.
It turns out the answer may be a bit more complicated.
Let’s take a look at the specific factors that make the difference.
Social Media Can Be Social (If used to connect)
A 2016 study with the apt subtitle, “Why an Instagram picture may be worth more than a thousand Twitter words,” finds that image-based social media platforms like Instagram and Snapchat may be able to decrease loneliness because of the higher levels of intimacy they provide.
Another 2016 study, specifically looking at Instagram use, found that it isn’t the platform that matters. It is the way the platform is used that matters.
The researchers studied Instagram use among 208 undergraduate students, finding there was one thing that made all the difference: “the social comparison orientation.”
What is social comparison orientation?
It’s when you compare yourself to others on social media. For example, you may find yourself passively scanning through an endless feed of finely curated photos, wishing you had a different body, a different job, a different life!
It’s the sense that everyone has it better than you, and that you’re missing out on all of the best events, vacations, and products.
Students who rated high on social comparison orientation were more likely to widely broadcast their posts in an attempt to gain status. Students who rated low were more likely to use the platform to connect with others meaningfully.
A 2008 study on internet use among older adults supports this distinction, finding:
…greater use of the Internet as a communication tool was associated with a lower level of social loneliness. In contrast, greater use of the Internet to find new people was associated with a higher level of emotional loneliness.
Using the internet as a communication tool can decrease loneliness.
Experimental evidence in a 2004 study, highlights this by measuring a person’s level of loneliness throughout multiple intervals as they engage in an online chat. They concluded:
Internet use was found to decrease loneliness and depression significantly, while perceived social support and self-esteem increased significantly.
Although chatting online can decrease loneliness, what about using social media platforms to post status updates?
A 2012 study conducted an experiment to determine if posting a Facebook status increases or decreases loneliness. Yes, this is an actual experiment.
The researchers told one group of participants to increase their number of status updates for one week. They didn’t give any instructions to a second control group. Results revealed:
(1) that the experimentally induced increase in status updating activity reduced loneliness, (2) that the decrease in loneliness was due to participants feeling more connected to their friends on a daily basis, and (3) that the effect of posting on loneliness was independent of direct social feedback (i.e., responses) by friends.
These results may seem to contradict the previous finding that social media broadcasting is correlated with increased loneliness, but there is a crucial difference: the social comparison orientation.
In this experiment, the researchers did not differentiate between users who had high or low levels of social comparison. The users in the group being told to update their status more frequently were not told to scan their news feeds more often, nor was their social media use manipulated to alter their level of social comparison.
So what is the key lesson here?
Using social media in a way that connects us with others can make us less lonely and more social.
Unfortunately, as social media use increases, we are becoming lonelier.
This trend suggests we may not be using social media in the most social ways, comparing ourselves to others. In addition, we may be sacrificing in-person interaction for the convenience of social media interaction. Both of these factors increase the likelihood of experiencing social isolation.
If you are interested in reading more on the psychology of social media, you can check out my comprehensive post on the topic here: Why We Are Addicted To Social Media: The Psychology of Likes.
In that article, I go deep into the research on what keeps our brains hooked on social media likes and how you can use social media in a healthier way.
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What does success really mean?
The media bombards us with messages that success means having money, power, privilege, or beauty.
Our parents have another idea of what success means, pushing for job security, financial stability, and raising well-adjusted children.
Success means something different for everyone, so what is the true meaning of success?
It means living in alignment with your personal definition of success by staying true to your values and taking meaningful actions toward your own valued goals.
In this article, I dive into the science and philosophy of what success really means and how it affects your level of satisfaction in life.
The Meaning of Success in Modern Society
“I want the money, money and the cars, cars and the clothes… I just wanna be successful.Trey Songz – Successful
When it comes down to it, “the good life” actually means a life of happiness. But where does happiness come from?
Media definition of success tells us it can be found in material possessions, status, and a life filled with luxury. But as many of us already know, these things can bring pleasure, but this version of happiness is like a bottomless pit, needing to be fueled by ever more stimulus to sustain it, eventually making us miserable.
A report by the Association for Psychological Science confirms this, finding:
“Simply having a bunch of things is not the key to happiness…[.] Our data show that you also need to appreciate those things you have. It’s also important to keep your desire for things you don’t own in check.”
But why do we continue to desire the infinite? Can we ever fill the void?
The answer is no.
Just like someone self-medicating with drugs or addictive behaviors, there is never enough.
Part of the desire for material possessions is the desire for acceptance from others. When the need for acceptance is unmet and we do not accept ourselves, we give up our own version of success for society’s definition.
Chuck Palahniuk says it best in Fight Club:
“The things you own end up owning you.”
Even though you may still feel like you’re in the driver seat of your life, you know deep down that you’re driving down the wrong road.
As the sense of resentment grows, the morphine drip of material comforts, social status, and security numbs this nagging feeling. As stated in Fight Club:
“We buy things we don’t need, to impress people we don’t like.”
Affluent society masks its hypocrisy with a veneer of politeness and good manners. Symbols of material success become symbols of moral success, disguising the state of moral lack. As William James said:
“The moral flabbiness born of the exclusive worship of the bitch-goddess SUCCESS. That – with the squalid cash interpretation put on the word ‘success’ – is our national disease.”
This false image of success keeps us always looking for more.
Bigger, better, smarter, faster, stronger, more attention, more stuff! The more we get, the more we want.
Émile Durkheim characterizes this state of moral flabbiness in the following way:
“Unlimited desires are insatiable by definition and insatiability is rightly considered a sign of morbidity. Being unlimited, they constantly and infinitely surpass the means at their command; they cannot be quenched. Inextinguishable thirst is constantly renewed torture.”
Drinking from the seductive cup of material success will only make you thirstier.
This classic sociological wisdom is backed by contemporary science. In a 2016 article on income and happiness, the author’s state find that happiness does increase as income rises, but gains diminish after a household income ofÂ $80,000 a year. These gains reach zero at $200,000 a year.
Therefore, having a reasonable level of financial security reduces negative emotions, but the pursuit of infinite wealth does not contribute to happiness.
This finding has also been replicated on a broader level, looking at the correlation between a countries wealth and the happiness of its citizens. In this 2010 article, the authors state:
“…over the long-term, usually a period of 10 years or more, happiness does not increase as a country’s income rises.”
Similar to the previous study, happiness does decline in a state of economic contraction, likely due to a sense of financial insecurity. But in the long term, the pursuit of infinite wealth does not increase a countries happiness.
Let’s now turn to lessons from classic literature.
In The Death of Ivan Ilych, Leo Tolstoy gives a tragic account of a man who wasted his whole life conforming to an empty social norm. On his deathbed, Ivan Illych comes to question the whole of his life. Had he been merely going through the prescribed motions? In the society depicted, success comes at the cost of meaningful human relations.
As stated by Psychologist Mark Freeman in his 1997 publication in Cambridge Journal’s Ageing & Society:
“Tolstoy’s book is about many things: the tyranny of bourgeois niceties, the terrible weak spots of the human heart, the primacy and elision of death. But more than anything, I would offer, it is about the consequences of living without meaning, that is, without a true and abiding connection to one’s life.“
A true and abiding connection to one’s life means living beyond the superficial success game.
Psychological science also backs this up.
In The Harvard Grant Study, the researchers studied the same group of men for nearly 80 years, trying to uncover what leads to a happier life, finding:
“Close relationships, more than money or fame, are what keep people happy throughout their lives, the study revealed. Those ties protect people from life’s discontents, help to delay mental and physical decline, and are better predictors of long and happy lives than social class, IQ, or even genes.”
Veterans returning from deployment know this better than anyone else.
Upon returning from a world where every decision means the difference between life and death, they are quick to diagnose our society’s individualism.
As one Canadian veteran I interviewed states:
“It’s hard to care about things you should care about in civilian life.”
“There was just an overwhelming sense that nothing mattered”
Bryan Wood, a U.S veteran, mirrors this sentiment in his memoir, Unspoken Abandonment. After witnessing the profound tragedy of war, his sense of what mattered in life was uprooted. Referring to the conversations of co-workers he states:
“I couldn’t believe the kind of silly bullshit these people thought mattered in life. I couldn’t believe I once thought these same things were important.”
“You’re used to doing things that mattered, and suddenly your life is simply digesting bullshit and consuming instead”
Consumer culture leads us away from the true and abiding connection to one’s life that comes with following our own definition of success.
To learn more about how my research on veterans informs my understanding of success in civilian life, you can check out my article, 6 Things Veterans Can Teach Us About Life.
A Deeper Understanding of Success
“Ambition makes you look pretty ugly” Radiohead
Imagine you are at a funeral.
A close friend of the deceased steps up to the pulpit and proceeds with the following eulogy:
He was a hard workerâ€¦ highly organized and independent, a skilled communicator who could work well with others, detail-oriented, and was able to work efficiently in a fast-paced environment.
He was a wise man, never received a grade lower than an A-, balanced a full course-load with extracurricular activities, and maintained a full scholarship throughout college.
He was a loving man. He loved the sweet taste of victory every time he closed a deal.
He was a committed man. He was always committed to the bottom line and he could consistently increase profits by 30% each quarter.
You would be startled by this friend who completely neglected the things that actually matter.
Rather than a eulogy, it would look as if the friend were speaking on behalf of the deceased for a postmortem job interview.
But if these things don’t actually matter, why do we spend the majority of our time focused on building these resume virtues while neglecting the eulogy virtues?
InÂ The Road to Character, David Brooks illustrates how we are living in an age increasingly dominated by the resume virtues. He argues that our increased focus on building our resumes has distracted us from deeper virtues.
These deeper virtues include a deep and abiding philosophy of life, the ability to love compassionately, and the ability to commit oneself to the discipline of service to a larger moral cause.
So what’s wrong with ambition and the desire to get ahead?
Nothing is wrong with having ambitions; the problem is having an unbalanced level of ambition associated with the resume virtues, while completely neglecting the eulogy virtues.
Consider a person who goes to professional conferences for the sole purpose of building their resume and promoting their personal brand.
They pass from person to person, handing out their business card, trying to weasel into conversions with prestigious figures. They operate on an autopilot “what can I get” mentality, spamming everyone who is deemed useful.
A thin veneer of self-importance masks their inner-fragility, but no one is fooled. Like Radiohead said in Paranoid Android, Ambition makes you look pretty ugly.
As a lecturer in sociology at Eastern Michigan University, I have seen this resume-focused culture among students who feel crushed by the pressure to constantly perform to the point where anything lower than an A seems like a failing grade.
Many students have come to view their education as an obstacle to overcome so they can look impressive on paper in order to attain high paying jobs. But this is not necessarily their fault. The impersonal bureaucratized education system uses GPAs and standardized tests to sort through a large number of applicants.
This system produces grade-obsession, overshadowing self-cultivation, and character development. Simply memorizing a set of factual bullet-points for the exam has become the main goal for many students. This type of ambition is neither in the best interest of students or the broader society.
The real world does not want someone who simply knows a lot of facts; we have Google for that. The real world wants people who understand how to useÂ knowledge to solve problems.
In order to solve the world’s problems, we need people who are self-aware, emotionally intelligent, and have a disciplined sense of commitment to serving a larger cause.
These are the characteristics associated with the eulogy virtues. These are the characteristics that will save us from ugliness.
Aristotle gave us a version of the good life that is not only sustainable, but it also promotes true happiness.
His first principle is that all things aim at “the good”. Like archers directing an arrow toward a target, “the good” is the ultimate target of our actions. The problem is that this ultimate aim is often interrupted.
As Jean Vanier states in Made for Happiness: Discovering the Meaning of Life with Aristotle:
Today, as always, many people are not interested in the target, that is to say, the ultimate end of their actions. They are prompted by what everyone wants â€” as if their family, society, and the media were determining their development. Of course they want success, pleasure, recognition, but without really knowing why. They are caught up in short-term projects that prevent them from thinking about the purpose and meaning of human life.
Aristotle tells us that the key to redirecting our life toward “the good” is to use our reason to direct our passions and chaotic desires toward virtue. Jean Vanier gives the following metaphor of reason taking the reins of the passions:
Like runaway, riderless horses, they await direction. Man’s proper task is to take hold of the reins and guide them, to orient these desires, with all their fulminating energy, towards the sought-after end.
The problem is that this is far easier said than done.
How to Build a Better Version of Success
If you are addicted to the socially construed definition of success, it is not easy to simply suppress your deep emotional attachments to this way of life.
Our minds are driven by our emotions.
Contemporary moral psychologist, Jonathan Haidt, empirically demonstrates that David Hume’s passion-driven conception of human reason is more in line with reality.
Rather than a rider taking the reigns of a horse, Haidt says reason is more like a rider on an elephant.
Although reason can nudge us in a specific direction, the emotions, represented by the elephant, overwhelmingly drive our behavior. Since reason is not sovereign, this idea flips Aristotle’s method of virtuous self-development on his head, forcing us to train our emotions rather than our reason.
How does one go about training their emotions?
In the case of psychological disorders, emotion-focused cognitive-behavioral therapy or present-centered breathing techniques may be beneficial.
But beyond the case of psychological disorders, a morally virtuous character is not built from within. Rather, the virtuous character is built between the individual and society.
In The Happiness Hypothesis, Jonathan Haidt gives two possible methods of facilitating this type of interaction:
What is the meaning of life? The question is unanswerable in that form, but with a slight rephrasing we can answer it. Part of the answer is to tie yourself down, commit yourself to people and projects, and enter a state of â€œvital engagementâ€ with them. The other part is to attain a state of “cross-level coherence” within yourself, and within your life. Religion is an evolved mechanism for satisfying these needs. We can find meaning and happiness without religion, but we must understand our evolved religious nature before we can find effective substitutes.
So to recap, the archer whose target is “the good life” is not merely distracted by emotions, but driven by them.
Training the emotional elephant can take the form of individual therapy, but must take the form of vital social engagement to build a virtuous character.
Developing this character is its own reward, producing happiness throughout the process. Therefore, happiness is not to be confused with”the good life”.
If “the good life” is the target, happiness is the vehicle by which one works toward it. Happiness is facilitated by social forces that promote moral commitment such as work and community life.
Johnathen Haidt also raises the important question of how a diverse society can promote a common morality:
Is virtue its own reward? Yes, but in the modern West we’ve lost the ability to grow most virtues in good soil, and we’ve reduced virtue to just being nice. Where did we go wrong, and how can we forge a common morality in a diverse society?
Fundamentally, man’s desire toward “the good life” is the desire to have a common purpose found in community.
Individualistic social contexts have a tendency to leave this desire unfulfilled. This results in the pursuit of status, encouraged by the success ideolog, as highlighted at the beginning of this post.
Luxurious lifestyles and status symbols can give us the thrill of temporary pleasure, but it is ultimately a bottomless pit, always demanding more.
True happiness comes from a life of virtue, nourished by a moral social context that provides purpose and direction, promoting our lives together.
For a deeper look at the meaning of purpose, you can check out my article, What Does it Mean to Have a Purpose.
How A Company is Redefining Success
â€œWe asked ourselves what we wanted this company to stand for. We didn’t want to just sell shoes. I wasn’t even into shoes – but I was passionate about customer service.” Tony Hsieh
It is no secret that the key to Zappos’ success is its unique company culture. The turning point occurred when founder Tony Hsieh changed their guiding principle from profits to service.
In Delivering Happiness, Tony outlines his insights into company culture throughout his entrepreneurial career. Taking insights from the field of positive psychology and applying it to his organizational setting, Tony has been able to create a cult-like environment that inspires individuals through service.
Although the concept of service has its roots in the religious-life of ritual, the sociologist Émile Durkheim argued that occupational groups would take over this function in the modern era. But as we have seen in the development of corporate America, this is often not the case.
Decidedly breaking from the culture of greed as a motivator, Zappos has created a cult of service. Inspiring rather than motivating has been Tony’s goal.
But how does service inspire individuals, making them happier? The answer is the meaning and sense of purpose that comes with service to a cause outside of ourselves.
At Zappos, achieving happiness comes from delivering happiness. The culture of service Tony has been able to achieve inspires employees by giving them a sense of purpose outside themselves. This is supported throughout the workplace structure at Zappos.
A prime example of how Zappos is redefining success is the lack of time-restrictions on customer service phone calls and a large amount of staff allotted to this position. This allows employees to focus on serving the customer, rather than call-time efficiency. Tony actually reported that their record call-time was seven and a half hours with a customer!
The foundation of Zappos’ company culture centers on its core values. These are the guiding principals that support a positive environment where individuals gain a sense of comradery rather than a sense of competition.
Unlike most organizations, their core values are actually relevant, meaningful, and drawn upon to determine who is hired and fired. This means that individuals who are highly qualified will not be hired or retained if they are not in line with the core values.
Instead of assuming individuals are motivated by an endless pursuit of wealth, Zappos focuses its resources on building a workplace that fosters positive relations and provides a structure that allows employees to serve.
Check out the Zappos Family Culture Book, for first-hand accounts of the powerful workplace culture at Zappos.
True success means staying true to a deeper sense of purpose, despite deviating from a superficial social norm.
It means finding joy in suffering. It means having the courage to peruse one’s own journey when confronted by the fear of uncertainty.
In a world characterized by rapidly growing uncertainty, we can try to seek solace in the empty promise of conventional success, or we can choose our own path.
Although it is our own path, we need to be aware of how this path connects us to a cause or community beyond ourselves.
Living in aliment with our core values allows us to genuinely connect with others rather than trying to gain a false sense of acceptance through status.
Hopefully, this article has helped clarify the true meaning of success.
If you are interested in learning more about this topic, you can check out my articles on Identity, Purpose, and Belonging.
On the go? Listen to the audio version of the article here:
The phrase, “it’s lonely at the top” suggests success causes loneliness. But what does the research say on whether successful people are actually at risk of loneliness?
According to Thomas Joiner in Lonely at the Top, success can cause loneliness when people neglect the quality and quantity of their close social relations in favor of focusing on instrumental goals associated with success.
Although being successful does not guarantee loneliness, it can be a risk factor for loneliness, especially among successful older men.
Let’s take a closer look at what causes this form of loneliness.
Career Success Among Men
For millennia, men have enjoyed a disproportionate amount of wealth and power. Although the gender gap is now narrowing, women still earn roughly 74 cents for every dollar men earn.
Part of this gap may be due to discrimination, but another explanation is that women might be more likely to choose life-satisfaction over higher earnings.
Although men have held political and economic superiority, their success has lead to suffering from higher levels of loneliness. In Lonely at the Top, Thomas Joiner looks at the high cost of men’s success, showing that men’s loneliness is caused by their privilege. He states:
Much attention is focused, rightly, on men’s disproportionate share of wealth and power; too little attention is spent on men’s disproportionate share of misery, one index of which is high suicide rates.
How Success Causes Loneliness Among Men
Thomas Joiner argues that the loneliness and resulting misery are caused by ignoring relationships in favor of instrumental activities such as efficient problem-solving and a “go-getter” attitude to goal attainment.
Instrumental goals include focusing on getting ahead financially and out-competing others in the workplace. They include focusing on transactions over social relations.
This mentality is highlighted in the movie Glengarry GlenRoss:
ABC. “A”, always. “B”, be. “C”, closing. ALWAYS BE CLOSING. Always be closing…[.] you can’t play the man’s game, you can’t close them, and then tell your wife your troubles.
Joiner states that higher levels of instrumentality give a sense of purpose and contribute to lower levels of depression in men compared to women, but women’s greater focus on relationships is a protective factor later in life.
After retirement, men are more likely to suffer the effects of their relational neglect. The competitive career orientation may drive successful men in their careers, but this success comes at a high cost.
There is also a physical cost of men’s success, potentially leading to physical health complications.
As discovered in a study on loneliness:
“Loneliness is as strong a risk factor for illness and death as smoking, obesity, and high blood pressure,”
In addition to the physical costs, there are mental health costs. Upon retirement, men not only lose a sense of purpose, but they also lose many of their casual acquaintances at the workplace. This double loss increases the risk of suicide due to feeling isolated and lacking purpose. You can read more about this topic in my articles on suicide and mental health.
Joiner’s message is clear: men are privileged, instrumentally oriented, therefore neglect facilitating strong deep social ties, resulting in likely suffering from chronic loneliness later in life, perhaps without even recognizing how bad it is until it’s too late.
Solutions to the problem require men to focus on maintaining and deepening meaningful social ties, particularly later in life, or during retirement when they are most at risk.
Joiner recommends hobbies, regular gatherings with friends, and even using Facebook, which Joiner regards as a useful platform to stay connected with others, despite its potential for overuse. I talk more about how to use social media in a healthy way in my article on social media addiction.
Loneliness Among Male Veterans
In terms of my own research, the social transition faced by veterans returning to civilian life puts them at risk of experiencing loneliness.
One Canadian veteran recounts his experience transitioning into law school after the military. He states:
“[At law school] you’re in a large group, but ultimately you’re alone…. In the military you can bet someone is always looking out for you… you’re always accountable to one another – which is a great thing – but when you take that away it can be isolating.”
In terms of regaining a sense of belonging, veterans I spoke with found that non-traditional veterans groups were valuable. Treble Victor is one of the groups several individuals found helped them reconnect in civilian life. One individual stated:
“The experience [of transition] had been marked by quasi-isolation and challenges to connect with people. When I got to Treble Victor, I just walked in the room and the group felt very familiar and extremely welcoming, it was very much a social setting that was similar to what I had experienced while I was serving, so the comradery, the openness to connect, and the sense of trust, it’s like meeting family you never met.”
Although this issue is common among all veterans, it was especially difficult for those entering the highly individualistic white-collar professions. The Treble Victor veterans entrepreneurial group is a creative solution to this problem and can perhaps serve as a model for combating loneliness among civilian business-persons as well.
If you’re interested in reading more of my research on veterans, you can check out my articles on veterans in transition.
Preventing the Loneliness that Comes With Success
Although success may be a risk factor for loneliness, there are ways to prevent this issue before it starts. This involves focusing on the quality and quantity of one’s close social relations.
The ability to connect with others facilitates a positive sense of social identity which is necessary for individuals to feel a sense of belonging and significance.
As Hugh Mackay writes in The Good Life:
“…our identity is social at least as much as personal.”
Men’s identities have been traditionally tied to instrumental career attainment, neglecting the maintenance of quality interpersonal ties. This is why, as Joiner says, men are “lonely at the top.”
Retirement or career transitions can also trigger this state – especially in the case of veterans, whose life in the military facilitated deep ties to those they served with, but leaves them often struggling to reconnect in an individualistic civilian world.
Loneliness is a risk factor for success, especially among older men. Preventing loneliness requires one to focus on the quality and quantity of one’s close social relations.
Men who lose meaningful social ties due to an overemphasis on instrumentalism may find themselves lonely at the top.
In addition, those who leave the military lose the social identity formed through deep ties to those they served with.
This is important because loneliness is a significant risk factor for suicide, as well as mortality through physical illness.
Men need to recognize this is a significant issue and take action to work on their interpersonal relations. Lastly, as a society, we need to acknowledge this issue and facilitate men’s social connectedness.
If you’re interested in reading more about how social connection contributes to better overall health, you can check out my article, What Is Social Health?
On the go? Listen to the audio version of the article here:
As a millennial, I am no stranger to the idea of following your passion.
Many of us are focused on following a passion, not satisfied settling on a career for the sole sake of making money.
So what does it mean to follow your passion?
Following your passion means exploring areas that spark your interest, developing your skills in a specific area, and using those skills to contribute to something beyond yourself.
This article explores the idea of what it means to follow your passion and considers a better path to achieving satisfaction in your career and in life.
If you or someone you know is struggling with mental health issues, you can check out my resource page for suggestions on how to find help.
What is the Meaning of ‘Passion’?
Passion means sacrificial suffering as well as strong sexual desire. Referring to both sex and death, passion encompasses the cycle of life in one word.
The Latin origin of passion is “pati,” meaning “suffer,” and the word gained popularity in Christian theology referring to the sacrificial suffering of martyrs.
In the sixteenth century, passion began to refer to sexual love and a sense of strong liking or enthusiasm, seemingly the opposite of its original use. Although passion can still refer to pain and suffering – as seen in The Passion of the Christ – today, the word mainly conjures up strong connotations of pleasure and desire.
Although seemingly contradictory, the paradoxical nature of passion needs to be understood before applying it to practical issues.
The word has lost its depth in the popular personal development genre whose gurus overemphasize states of blissful contentment. In this sense, “follow your passion” becomes a difficult piece of advice to follow since it turns one’s passion into a fleeting emotional state.
Ask Canadian teenaged boys about their passion and most of them will tell you that it’s hockey – based on a study by Robert J. Vallerand. The problem is that almost all of them will eventually need to give up the dream of playing for the NHL.
But this does not mean they failed to pursue their passion; it just means they need to realize passions are developed, not simply found. This development takes hard word.
As Cal Newport states:
“Passion comes after you put in the hard work to become excellent at something valuable, not before. In other words, what you do for a living is much less important than how you do it.”
Both passionate martyrs and passionate lovers share the ability to lose themselves in an act. One suffers the cost of great pain, while the other derives pleasure. The martyr and the lover are the archetypes of passion and we need them both when developing a passion.
Losing oneself in one’s work is not an eternal bliss. The pain and pleasure of passion are intertwined, rewarding those on the journey who persevere.
Should you Follow Your Passion?
“‘Follow your passion’ is dangerous advice.” – Cal Newport
So why is “follow your passion” bad advice?
First of all, it assumes your “passion” is a specific thing inside of you, waiting to be uncovered. In fact, it is the other way around: our passion is a byproduct of doing great work. In Drive, Daniel H. Pink makes the case that career happiness comes from having a position that allows for autonomy, mastery, and purpose.
This means we need to have a level of control over our work, feel that we are advancing our skills, and have a sense that we are contributing to a larger purpose outside ourselves.
Therefore, our passion develops with an activity, not uncovered beforehand. Defining your passion beforehand can limit potential opportunities to attain work that offers these three characteristics that facilitate career happiness.
Your passion may not be what you think…
Take the example of Gary Vaynerchuk who has been a successful entrepreneur since he could ride his bike around the block to collect cash from his various lemonade stands.
Growing up, his first passion was baseball cards. As an adolescent he learned everything there was to know about baseball cards, turning his passion into a very profitable vending business. He had dreams of opening up enough baseball card shops one day to buy the New York Jets.
Gary relentlessly pursued this passion until one day his father forced him to work a dull inventory job in the basement of his family’s liquor store.
Although this looks like a cruel injustice, it was the very thing that opened up a world of opportunities for him to peruse his passion at a larger scale than he had ever conceived.
Noticing customers in the store collected wine, he saw an opportunity and applied the entrepreneurial sense he developed through baseball cards to wine. Becoming a wine expert, he eventually turned his small family shop into a sixty-million-dollar business. But was wine his “true” passion? Far from it.
Just like the baseball cards and the lemonade, wine was merely a vehicle to execute his relentless entrepreneurial passion. Gary Vaynerchuck has now taken the business skills to his digital marketing startup and is a strong advocate for loving what you do.
The lesson is to not define your passion too narrowly, since you might mistake the vehicle for the engine – in other words, don’t mistake the passion’s present exterior form for the passion itself.
The same can be said about defining your passion too broadly, since almost everyone can identify with a passion for “helping people.” The question then becomes the particular form your passion takes: how are you helping people?
Let your passion follow you, instead.
Getting your passion to follow you requires developing skills that offer as much value as possible.
Progressing on one’s path to mastery, based on one’s innate or developed strengths is the best way to achieve a passionate work-life. Passion is earned.
Vocations are not handed to the amateur, they are achieved by walking the path and doing the work. Vocations can be shape-shifters, outlets for one’s craft that don’t necessarily take on a stable or specified form.
In So Good They Can’t Ignore You, Cal Newport urges us to be like craftsmen of our skills. The craftsman mindset allows passion to serendipitously emerge through one’s work, distinct from the passion-centered mindset which fixates on a pre-existing set of ideal conditions. He gives the example of Steve Jobs’ “messy” career path, stating:
“Steve Jobs was something of a conflicted young man, seeking spiritual enlightenment and dabbling in electronics only when it promised to earn him quick cash.”
He became passionate in the tech business only after developing his skills in this area and walking the path to mastery.
One cannot create the spark of passion without first striking the flint. Rather than going on a passion treasure-hunt, we need to become craftsmen of our skills, as Cal Newport argues in So Good They Can’t Ignore You.
To become craftsmen of our skills, we need to engage in deliberate practice and let go of the idea that it’s going to all be an eternal state of blissful contentment. As Cal states:
“Doing things we know how to do well is enjoyable, and that’s exactly the opposite of what deliberate practice demands.”
Giving up at the first sign of strife is a surefire way to stifle a spark of passion. Instead, kindling the spark of passion into a burning desire requires remembering that the root of the word means to suffer, and building anything of significance comes at a cost.
This advice is also useful during times of transition. Rather than having your passion depend on your social role, take your passion with you to the new role and find ways to apply your unique skills to the new situation.
Like Gary’s sequence of business ventures, your vocation can take on several different external forms. The key is that you find a way to bring your unique skills to the situation and be “so good they can’t ignore you,” as Cal Newport says. This means you must understand your strengths, understand the market, and craft your strengths to align with the market.
What I Learned Developing my Passion
Here are three things I’ve learned throughout my twenties as I developed a passion for a sociological perspective on mental health and addiction.
1. Gain insight into your strengths
I didn’t realize I was going in the wrong career direction until I started looking at my strengths and seriously listening to feedback from those around me.
My strengths are slowly processing abstract information, writing, and a strong interest in highly niche philosophical areas. Becoming an academic researcher and university professor plays to my strengths. The problem was that for most of my life I had my eyes set on a career in policing because it was a secure route with a good pension and I couldn’t think of any other career ideas at the time.
At one point I also took an office admin job that I had failed at quite miserably. With its fast-paced multitasking and lack of intellectual stimulation, I can honestly say I found it easier to do a doctorate in sociology than to work in that role. Rather than trying to fit in with what everyone else is doing or what you may be expected to do, play to your strengths, even if it results in taking a less conventional route.
Knowing your strengths and weaknesses is key to setting yourself up for success later in life. Take a serious look at your life, beginning from your early childhood.
What types of things have you always been drawn to? What type of temperament or personality traits do you have? How can you use these to your competitive advantage?
Sit down with someone you trust to give you honest feedback on your strengths and weaknesses. The sooner you start playing to your strengths, the more time you will have to build on your competitive advantage and set yourself up for success in your thirties onward.
2. Develop a passion through specialized skills
There are no shortage of millennials trying to “find their passion.” twenty-somethings in America are enthralled by entrepreneurial pursuits that can bring meaning to their work-lives. The problem is that with this increasing level of flexibility there is also an increasing level of uncertainty.
Rather than trying to “follow your passion,” I say, “make your passion follow you.” This means knowing your strengths and putting in the work first, then your passion for that work will likely grow as you progress in the area.
As I neared the end of my doctoral degree in sociology, I discovered how relevant this advice truly is. Throughout my grad school career, I have been asked repeatedly, “what are you going to do with that degree?” To which I always replied, “the only job available for someone with this degree: research and teach in a university setting.”
As much as I would love to land a tenure-track professorship, I now recognize that my passion for writing, analytical inquiry, and strategic problem-solving are not dependent on the university context. I am now broadening my horizon by contributing to projects outside the walls of academia.
When your passion is based on your skills, losing your job can’t even take that away. Your passion will follow you so long as you put in the work.
3. Grind, hustle, and live simply
Gain the skills, knowledge, and networks that will lay a strong foundation for your career and social life. This requires a long-term mindset. Like the game of monopoly, the goal is to invest, invest, invest, and wait for the payout.
Long-term investment in yourself is made all the more difficult nowadays when bombarded with social media posts making it seem like everyone else is super rich and traveling all the time. Delayed gratification is a true virtue when laying the foundation for your future success.
My own version of self-investment was nine years of university education packed with reading, writing, and re-reading abstract sociological texts, coupled with rapidly consuming a large chunk of content coming out of the personal development genre.
Along the way I witnessed others around me rake in the cash at their “real jobs,” traveling the globe, and stocking designer wardrobes. Submitting to the process requires short-term sacrifices, but you will look back thanking yourself for laying a strong foundation for your own definition of success, rather than giving into short term monetary gains.
Stay on your path to mastery, become a craftsman of your work, and know that vocations are earned, not found. Perhaps then, instead of following your passion, your passion will start following you.
If you are interested in learning more about what it means to have a purpose, you can check out my article on the topic here: What Does It Mean to Have a Purpose?
On the go? Listen to the audio version of the article here:
Do you ever feel lost in life?
Or are you bored to death by a soul-destroying repetitive job requiring little to no creativity?
At moments like these, you may feel like your life lacks purpose. But what does it mean to have a sense of purpose?
A sense of purpose means dedicating yourself to a cause beyond yourself. It’s a goal that fuels your motivation in life, giving your life meaning and direction, inspiring you to make a significant contribution to the world.
If you or someone you know is struggling with mental health issues, you can check out my resource page for suggestions on how to find help.
Purpose Gives Life Meaning
The psychologist Victor Frankl states that humans are driven by the necessity to seek meaning in their lives by committing to a cause or purpose outside themselves.
If an individual is unable to find a meaningful commitment, the suffering they experience leads to despair. If they are able to find a meaningful commitment, any suffering they experience will be met with resilience and the strength to preserver toward their goals.
Frankl is a living example of this philosophy since he survived two concentration camps in Nazi Germany through his commitment to the goal of rewriting and publishing his book that was nearly finished before being taken away when he entered the camp. His book can be found here: Mans Search for Meaning.
Since this drive to find meaning is essential for human beings, according to Frankl, a lack of meaning leaves an “existential vacuum” whereby one is susceptible to a state of despair.
We often ineffectively cope with this form of suffering by conforming to others, seeking simple fleeting pleasures, or by demonstrating superiority over others. All of these routes lead to unconscious suffering since they simply repress the existential vacuum produced by the lack of meaning. They do not actually fill the vacuum by creating meaning.
In other words, rather than feeling the pain, it is numbed by the temporary pleasure of stimulants, depressants, or the feeling of superiority. This is the root of addiction.
Working toward a meaningful goal is replaced by drugs, alcohol, excessive television-watching, internet games, or on the other hand, an obsession focused on success or acquiring power over others.
Purpose Gives You Direction
I often hear people accuse others of being lazy. This is especially true regarding the baby-boomers attitude toward millennials who are perceived as self-entitled brats who don’t know the value of hard work and can’t put their phones down.
“Kids today…” they say; “…they are not willing to work hard as we did.”
Is there an epidemic of laziness among today’s youth? Or is this another case of an older generation in misalignment with values, beliefs, and norms of a younger generation.
I don’t believe there an epidemic of laziness. Today’s youth are not lazy, they are lost. Unlike the baby boomers, millennials can’t rely on a standard life-course involving smooth and predictable transitions between each stage.
Baby boomers are right when they say, “the world was simpler then.” Social structures were much more stable, bound by stronger cultural norms regarding gender, sexuality, as well as the meaning of adulthood and family.
If you didn’t fit into normal gender ideals, sexual orientations, or take on normal adult responsibilities, you were probably marginalized and considered weird.
Now, everything is becoming weird. Actually, weird is the new cool. Millennials are freer to experiment with the way they present their gender, who they engage with sexually, and how they make their money.
Although we’ve seen progress regarding tolerance, millennials are now tasked with navigating a highly fluid, highly complex social milieu where there are fewer clear signposts directing them along their life-course.
Today’s youth see a multitude of paths but don’t know which way to go. Simply finishing high-school no longer guarantees a long line of employers offering you a position. Even finishing a post-secondary degree can’t guarantee that! Personally, I’ve finished three post-secondary degrees and still wonder if I’ll ever have stable employment.
There has been an explosion of both opportunity and uncertainty. Today’s youth are not lazier than the last generation’s, they are just more lost.
Human beings function best with a clear sense of direction and purpose. Remember those essay assignments in school when the teacher told you to just write whoever you want? They were always the hardest.
When the regulations are clear, students thrive. When they are vague, students flounder, put it off, or take much longer to complete the assignment. Loosely structured assignments do not cause students to become lazy; the lack of regulation makes them feel lost.
We need to look at how our social environments may be doing the same thing.
Nietzsche tells us that when we have a “why” we can overcome almost any “how”. Rather than berating millennials, calling them lazy and unmotivated, we need to consider whether or not they have something to be motivated to move toward.
In a world with so many options, we need to offer forms of institutional support that can provide direction for youth who are coming of age in this complicated age.
This may come in the form of updated career counseling classes in schools, peer-support groups for young entrepreneurs, or community programs that give young people a chance to apply and build on their unique skills.
What is the Meaning of Life Purpose?
A sense of purpose is key to living a meaningful life. It is the heart of passion and it can bring us to deeper levels of long-term happiness, providing resilience amidst great hardships.
A sense of purpose is something we often talk about wanting, seeking, or having, but it is somewhat elusive in our world of ongoing life-projects, characterized by multiple careers in a highly fluid world.
So what does purpose actually mean?
The concept of “purpose” comes from the Anglo-French “purpos” referring to an intention, aim, or goal. Broadly speaking, it can refer to purposely getting drunk on the weekend, purposely caring for your loved ones, or even purposely putting the toilet seat down; therefore, purpose is goal-oriented action.
In order to talk about the specific type of purpose I alluded to in the intro, we will need to refine the concept. But before we can refine the concept, we need to figure out the role of purpose in one’s life. This means defining the purpose of life-purpose.
In other words, the purpose of life-purpose can be called the end-goal of life-end-goals, the end of all other ends, or the ultimate end. In regular English, this simply translates to the question: why do we do what we do?
Luckily, Aristotle is a handy tool that can be used to fix this particular type of philosophical entanglement. Aristotle states that happiness is the ultimate end, meaning that all other goals are in some way directed toward the goal of happiness.
Therefore, the purpose of life-purpose is happiness. But before moving further, we need to look at what Aristotle means by happiness.
Distinct from hedonistic fleeting pleasures, Aristotle conceptualizes happiness as “eudemonia” which translates to “good spirit,” or in other words, “living well.” For Aristotle, living well/ living a good life means living virtuously in accordance with one’s reason, based on his ethics of moderation laid out in the Nicomachean Ethics.
To summarize the conceptual progress thus far, we can say that the purpose of life-purpose is to direct one toward living a good life. Therefore, a sense of purpose in life is distinct from the sense of purpose one feels during everyday goal-oriented tasks like grocery shopping because it acts as an overarching meta-purpose.
What this means is that it is a purpose that shapes all other purposes in alignment with an idea of the good. For example, if one’s life-purpose is heavily governed by a commitment to the flourishing of one’s children, one’s goals while grocery-shopping may be shaped by this overarching goal, moderating the type of foods one chooses to buy.
Therefore, the function of life-purpose is regulative. It curbs our short term desires/ hedonic purposes in order to align our actions in accordance with a conception of the good.
To again recap, I first established that the purpose of life-purpose is to direct one toward a conception of a good life. I then established that life-purpose has a regulatory function. Since both its purpose and function are morally regulative, life-purpose can also be called, “moral purpose.”
Aristotle refers to the concept of moral purpose when he states: Character is that which reveals moral purpose, exposing the class of things a man chooses or avoids. Aristotle’s virtue ethics places a strong emphasis on character development through individual will-power.
I want to pose a sociological counterbalance to Aristotle’s existentialism. In other words, I want to go deeper into the concept of moral purpose by demonstrating its social basis.
Sociologically, the concept of morality is strongly rooted in the work of Emile Durkheim. Similar to Aristotle, Durkheim makes a link between morality and happiness:
But it appears fairly certain that happiness is something besides a sum of pleasures. Pleasure is local; it is a limited affection of a point in the organism or conscience. In short, what happiness expresses is not the momentary state of a particular function, but the health of physical and moral life in its entirety.
For Durkheim, making fleeting pleasures one’s primary purpose is to live in a constantly unsatisfied anomic state of unregulated desire:
Unlimited desires are insatiable by definition and insatiability is rightly considered a sign of morbidity. Being unlimited, they constantly and infinitely surpass the means at their command; they cannot be quenched. Inextinguishable thirst is constantly renewed torture. To pursue a goal which is by definition unattainable is to condemn oneself to a state of perpetual unhappiness.
Although complete happiness is a goal that is unattainable, the goal of eudemonia is a distinct pursuit since it is the end at which all things aim. The pursuit itself is the fulfillment of eudemonia, not an end-goal.
Although Aristotle and Durkheim share a comparable definition of happiness, Durkheim is a helpful tool for getting at the social source of moral purpose, distinct from its manifestation through individual willing. In other words, Durkheim helps us understand the types of social environments that facilitate moral purpose.
Durkheim states, “for the sentiment of duty to be fixed strongly in us, the circumstances in which we live must keep us awake.” He places emphasis on the importance of strong social bonds that facilitate a sense of duty. Examples include religious life (in traditional contexts) and one’s occupational group (in modern contexts). Durkheim states:
…when community becomes foreign to the individual, he becomes a mystery to himself, unable to escape the exasperating and agonizing question: to what purpose?
For Durkheim, moral purpose is bound up with community life.
Put simply, purpose means having a goal that regulates individual action, in accordance with the values of a broader social environment.
How to Build a Sense of Purpose
These days, we’re always being told to find our passion. I think this is pretty bad advice.
It’s like telling someone who is unhappy to simply “find happiness”. If you’re trying to find your passion in a fog of purposelessness, you’re likely going to stumble around in a directionless haze, tormented by frustration.
Lacking purpose is an issue for many groups including the elderly, retirees, veterans, former high-level athletes, recent graduates, or those going through a mid-life crisis.
Erik Erikson described this phenomenon as the conflict of identity vs. role confusion, experienced in adolescence. I would go further than Erikson and argue this is not just an adolescent issue, but a universal issue that can be experienced at any age. Our sense of self is influenced by our social roles, so any kind of major life transition can provoke an identity crisis, affecting our sense of purpose.
So what is the antidote to purposelessness? Make yourself useful!
In theory, it sounds easy. It’s not too hard to find someone needing help. The problem is that you can’t be useful to anyone else if you’re not being useful to yourself first. So here is step one:
Be useful to yourself. Take care of your basic needs. organize the clutter in your physical environment and the chaos in your day-to-day life. Prioritize your sleep, nutrition, and exercise. If all of this sounds overwhelming, start small. As Jordan Peterson says, “Clean your damn room!” But as he also says, “Cleaning up your room involves cleaning up far more than your room.” Doing something useful for yourself is the first step in reorienting yourself amidst the mental fog of purposelessness. As the fog begins to thin out, you can start to see beyond yourself. This leads to step two:
Be useful to your family or close friends. Once you’re adequately useful to yourself and can help from a place of genuine giving, you can be useful to others close to you. I mention “genuine giving” because many people try to be useful to others without addressing their own needs first. This often results in codependent relationships where you do things for others to fill a lack of self-esteem in yourself. It is an experience of toxic shame where we constantly feel the need to prove ourselves and receive external validation. Once you’ve worked through these personal issues and can engage in close interpersonal relationships based on genuine heartfelt giving, the next step is this:
Be useful to the broader society. Once you’ve addressed your personal needs and can be of service to those closest to you, you can be useful to the broader society. This may happen in various ways. You can be useful in your work, volunteer roles, leisure activities, or even as an activist contributing to some form of social change. The key is that your way of contributing fits your unique personal strengths. Misalignment between your strengths, values, and interests can hinder your level of usefulness and the resulting level of purpose you feel toward the role. Finding alignment between your abilities and your role requires first knowing your strengths and cultivating them.
Since I recently turned thirty, I can say this is the greatest lesson I’ve learned during my twenties. Throughout the past decade of post-secondary education, I’ve had to constantly adjust the focus of my sociological studies to keep the purpose alive.
In the beginning, it was hard to imagine how sociology could be useful beyond the walls of academia, but that didn’t matter at the time. As in step one (be useful to yourself), sociology helped me make sense of the world, improved my critical thinking skills, and built my knowledge of history, politics, and human behavior. I learned how to write, how to present, and how to conduct myself in a professional environment.
Studying sociology was useful for me, but once I started my doctoral program, I questioned whether this was enough. It was hard to see how theorizing about “modernist discourses in a post-structural context” was useful to the broader world. Social theory often turns into an intellectual game of 3D chess played among career academics creating ever-new cleverly articulated problems that may or may not have any relation to the world outside the ivory tower. Luckily, I learned a lot while becoming skillful in the art of intellectual language games, but I had only been useful to myself.
After the first year of my doctoral program, my purpose became foggy. I asked myself, “What is the purpose of a university?” I knew the answer had to be something beyond self-enrichment, but I had become so entangled in theoretical jargon, I couldn’t even come up with a real problem to study. Here is an embarrassing excerpt from my original dissertation proposal draft:
“I will address the cultural meaning of technology in the context of recent developments in prosthetic technologies…. Building on the calls for a sociology of impairment that goes beyond the impairment/ disability dualism, while remaining critical of technological progress by engaging in a sociology of the prosthetic in order to consider the cultural meaning of technological enhancement for bodies marked as impaired.”
I was deep in the fog and couldn’t connect my own skills and interests to a broader social need. If you’ve been following my blog, you may know by now that I have come a long way since then. By the end of my second year, I began reading war memoirs and discovered that many veterans are having serious issues adjusting to civilian life. They were struggling to find purpose in a world where they no longer feel useful. This was the moment I knew what I needed to study. I could make myself useful by shedding light on this important issue.
Shortly after discovering a renewed sense of purpose, I started this blog. It has served as a way to work through ideas in dialogue with non-sociologists, helping me keep my focus relevant and in touch with real issues.
Since graduating three years ago, I’ve learned how to be useful in therapeutic contexts, working directly with individuals who suffer from an addiction. As I continue learning and practicing, hopefully, my usefulness grows, fueling a sense of purpose.
I never expected to end up in the addictions field. Simply trying to find a passion was not enough. I had found a passion for sociology but needed to rethink my usefulness to maintain the passion.
If you have lost your passion for something or are struggling to regain a sense of purpose after a major life transition, consider how you can make yourself useful to yourself, your family, and the broader society.
As Emerson states, “The purpose of life is not to be happy. It is to be useful…”. When you put happiness first, you find disappointment. When you put usefulness first, happiness follows.
A Sense of Purpose Can Save Your Life
“If you try to do only for yourself, you’ll only get so far in life. If you reach out to touch other people, you can fix your own soul.“ Bryan A. Wood
This idea was inspired by a comment from a fellow blogger who said this philosophy saved his life. He writes:
…once I’ve accepted that my life is fundamentally expendable, no longer worth living, I get on with it and do what I can, each act of generosity makes me feel better about myself, rebuilds my confidence if not my validity, sometimes it’s a long hike, a very long time alone.
when a caller at a distress centre where I volunteered asked once if I had found my own reason for living after my own bouts with myself, I answered that maybe it was to be there to help him, where would he be if I weren’t? I think that helped us both.
I’ve encountered this same sentiment of salvation through service in my interviews with Canadian veterans of Afghanistan. Upon leaving the military, one veteran stated:
You lose the sense that you are serving your country. Serving your country tends to be an undervalued activity, but it is one that veterans have embraced. Unlike any other profession, they put their life on the line. What they are looking for is something like what they just left, and that doesn’t exist anymore, so that’s why so many people don’t actually leave the military; they go to the reserves or they go into organizations that deliver projects to the military or they go on as trainers.
This individual stated that his step-son who also served in the Canadian Forces valued service and that although he embraced the value of his generation of making a lot of money in the banking industry, his heart was in public service and he spent a great deal of his spare time serving his military reserve-unit.
With service comes a sense of contribution. Therefore, losing the community one served creates a need to regain a sense of contribution. As one veteran states: “no one tells us, ‘hey, you’re still worthy of making a contribution.'” Facilitating social environments that give veterans the opportunity to apply their skills in civilian professions allows them to potentially regain a sense of service, reducing the risk of suicide in this population.
People die by suicide because of a sense of thwarted belonging and a perceived sense of “burdensomeness“ as discussed by Thomas Joiner. Therefore, even individuals who belong to a supportive group and are surrounded by loved ones may still be at risk of suicide of they feel like a burden to these people. The opposite of burdensomeness is the sense of meaning and purpose that comes with contribution/ service to a cause larger than oneself. A sense of meaning through service provides psychological resilience amidst the darkest states of suffering.
A sense of purpose means finding a sense of commitment to a goal or cause beyond yourself. When you lack a sense of purpose, you feel lost, unmotivated, and have difficulty finding meaning in life. Addictions are a common way to cope in the short term, compounding the issue in the long term.
If you are lacking a sense of purpose, it might be helpful to consider ways to make yourself useful. This does not necessarily mean waiting until you have advanced skill-sets. You can simply start by being useful to yourself and those around you.